Making miners safer Sandias Gemini-Scout robot likely to greet future trapped miners before rescuers do
As each of the 33 Chilean miners emerged from 69 days of subterranean captivity to worldwide celebration, a team of Sandia engineers on the other side of the equator was wrapping up its own, much quieter, mine rescue operation. Sandia engineers were busy putting the finishing touches on a robot that would alleviate some of the unknowns of mine rescues and arm rescuers with the most valuable tool: information.
Sandia’s Gemini-Scout Mine Rescue Robot is equipped to handle any number of obstacles, including rubble piles and flooded rooms, to help rescuers reach trapped miners safely and efficiently. (Photo by Randy Montoya)
In any mining disaster, rescuers who move in before the dust settles face unknown obstacles and conditions that can be just as harrowing and dangerous as what faced the miners. They must overcome poisonous gases, flooded tunnels, explosive vapors, and unstable walls and roofs, all of which work against teams who are up against a ticking clock.
To combat those deadly challenges and help rescue efforts move faster, Sandia robotics engineers have designed the Gemini-Scout Mine Rescue Robot. Able to navigate through 18 inches of water and crawl over boulders and rubble piles, the robot is able to go into dangerous situations ahead of rescuers to evaluate precarious environments and determine how operations should proceed.
“We have designed this robot to go in ahead of its handlers, to assess the situation and potential hazards, and allow operations to move more quickly,” says project manager Jon Salton (6533). “The robot is guided by remote control and is equipped with gas sensors, an infrared camera to locate survivors, and another pan-and-tilt camera mounted several feet up to see the obstacles we’re facing.”
In addition to giving rescuers an idea of what they’re headed into, the robotic scout can provide some relief to trapped miners. Less than four feet long and two feet tall, Gemini-Scout is nimble enough to navigate around tight corners and over safety hatches a foot high. It is equipped with two-way communication radios and can bring provisions such as food, air packs, and medicine to those trapped underground. Additionally, Gemini-Scout can be configured to potentially drag survivors to safety.
A number of challenges faced designers. They had to keep in mind the hazards typically found in mines. Methane and other gases could ignite if exposed to sparks, so the electronics are housed in casings designed to withstand an explosion. “Such measures would prevent a spark from causing further destruction. While it might harm the robot, it wouldn’t create another dangerous situation for the miners or rescuers,” Jon says.
And to ensure functionality in flooded tunnels, Gemini-Scout’s controls and equipment are waterproof. “When we were designing a robot that could provide this level of assistance, we had to be aware of the pressures and gases that are often found in that environment,” says Clint Hobart (6532), who was responsible for the mechanical design and system integration. “So we had to make sure the strength of materials matched what our goals were, and we had to keep everything lightweight enough so it could navigate easily.”
In addition, engineers had to make sure that the design was user-friendly enough to be intuitive to new operators who were trying to learn the system quickly. To overcome that challenge, they used an Xbox 360 game controller to direct Gemini-Scout, and the screen feels much like a video game. “We focused a lot on usability and copied a lot of gamer interfaces so that users can pick it up pretty quickly,” says Justin Garretson (6532), the lead software developer and an avid gamer.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) provided funding for the efforts, which have been underway for about three years. If all goes well, the Gemini-Scout could be in full production by the end of next year. The team is in the final stages of licensing Gemini-Scout to a commercial robotics company, but for now, the Mine Safety and Health Administration will be the primary customer.